Monday, April 30, 2012

New American species of bee

Buzzing yes, Stinging no

John Ascher is an entomologist in New York.  He's one of the leading experts on bees, but the blue-green buzzer he collected in Brooklyn's Prospect Park in 2010 puzzled him.  It took until 2012 to nail it down and get a formal description ready of the newest domestic species of bee - one of the "sweat bees" that "uses humans as a salt lick." Sounds a little gross, but these are basically harmless critters, and a new discovery within a major urban areas is always intriguing. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Book Review: Monsters of the Gévaudan

Monsters of the Gévaudan The Making of a Beast
Jay M. Smith, Harvard, 2011.
A popular intellectual pursuit of cyptozoologists is wondering what the beast was that was responsible for as many as a hundred deaths in rural France from 1764 on.  Jay Smith, a historian of high repute, has turned his formidable powers on this topic. He has succeeded admirably in explaining the cultural forces which made this mystery a huge national story that demanded the attention of the King and his best soldiers and huntsmen.  I am not quite sure he has nailed the Best, though.  Smith opens by saying that he will not ascribe the Beast "myth" to the backwardness of the peasants living under its spell, but he ends by doing pretty much exactly that.  He shows that killings of humans by wolves certainly happened in that region, then proceeds to the conclusion that the press (just freed from royal shakles, it was a beast all its own) and peasant tall tales and panic shaped ordinary events into an extraordinary affair.  In other words, peasants whose lives were at stake became convinced their tormentor was some kind of monster rather than a series of ordinary wolves.  Despite the enormous research displayed here, the monster still needs a better explanation to me. The locals grew up knowing wolves and the dangers they posed: very few people. farmers or officials, thought this was what they were dealing with.  A theory that it was either a really exceptional wolf or wolf-dog hybrid is possible, as is the possibility of an exotic escaped/released animal, a hyena.  There are museum hyena specimens of this period, their origins lost in poor record-keeping over the centuries.  In the end, I think Smith is too dismissive of the possibility of the extraordinary here.  Occam's razor cuts both ways: a hyena loose in France seems unlikely, but so does a farming region becoming panicked over a routine threat.  It may be we will never nail this particular hide to a barn. 

Karl Shuker interview on cryptozoology

What it really is and why it matters

Dr. Karl Shuker is one of the few prominent cryptozoologists with formal scientific credentials, and he shows no fear in being the public face of a controversial science.  In this wide-ranging interview, he explains a point I've often made, than cryptozoology and "regular" zoology use the same methods in pursuing the same type of discoveries.  He picks the orang-pendek and thylacine as the most likely large animals to be discovered or rediscovered. Shuker includes one tidbit I didn't know: I was aware the recently discovered Laotian rock rat was from a line of rodents thought extinct, but I didn't realize its family had disappeared from the fossil record 11 million years ago.  Shuker's new book is The Encyclopedia of New and Rediscovered Animals;  I'll post a separate review of that soon.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Paleontologists ask, "What the )(^%?"

Strange fossil find from the Devonian

Is this some giant of giant algae? If not, what? Over 2m long, this fossil dug out by dedicated amateurs in Kentucky has the paleontological community buzzing.  It really doesn't look like anything we know about.  Discoverer Ron Fine compared it to a flattened saguaro cactus.  This one is going to take a while to classify.

COMMENT: This is worth mentioning all by itself, but the word that stands out for me is "amateur" (which means "love of," BTW).  Science still relies on people who do often-arduous work out of sheer dedication.  Fine job, Mr. Fine!

Space launch to ISS now next week

Major milestone in private space

One of the success stories of the last few years in space industry is SpaceX, which persevered through early failures to fly their small Falcon 1 and medium-lift Falcon 9.  Their Dragon reusable capsule is slated to become the first private vehicle to dock with the International Space Station. The firm founded by Internet zillionare Elon Musk has slipped that launch date several times. Now it looks like May 7.  Their press release: "After reviewing our recent progress, it was clear that we needed more time to finish hardware-in-the-loop testing and properly review and follow up on all data. While it is still possible that we could launch on May 3rd, it would be wise to add a few more days of margin in case things take longer than expected. As a result, our launch is likely to be pushed back by one week, pending coordination with NASA."

Fingers crossed for May 7!

Big dino eggs - or rocks?

Would be biggest dino eggs ever

Actually, the eggs claimed discovered in Chechnya would dwarf all other dino eggs.  The biggest ever found are sauropod eggs about 30cm in diameter.  These eggs, it is claimed, are a meter across.  Mt geometry is too poor to figure out the relative volume, but the disparity is so great that palentologists in other nations are skeptical that these are dinosaur eggs and not some kind of rock nodules or concretions.  There appears to be a lot of nationalism here, mixed up with some uncertain paleontology.  These eggs, it is claimed, were in a pile or nest, while the biggest sauropods we know of laid their eggs in a line - simply dropped them while walking along.
COMMENT: This would be really cool if it's real, but I'll bet that it isn't.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Cameron and Google want to mine asteroids

Space Mining Venture

Well, I have to hand it to James Cameron.  The guy thinks BIG.  His latest venture, with some Google execs and Ross Perot Jr., and other people with serious economic and space-related credentials, is to mine near-Earth objects (NEOs), specifically asteroids rich in platinum-group metals. 
COMMENT: Well, this is breathtaking in its ambition.  "Go big or stay on Earth." I have to wonder about the transportation aspects. I wouldn't try to do this with only today's chemical propulsion.  I'd want an in-space nuclear thermal propulsion system so I could shuttle back and forth, or drag small asteroids, without having to burn umpteen tons of hydrogen or kerosene that has to be hauled into space at major expense.  I wish these folks luck.  There would need to be a billion-plus investment to get the NTR propulsion, but otherwise I'm not sure the economics will work at all.  I hope they succeed, though. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

A mess in Loch Ness?

Sonar image puzzles some

A cellphone camera, held by a boat captain in Loch Ness, captured the vessel's sonar screen as it showed what looks like an elongated shape trailing the boat about 23m down. 
This evidence won the captain, Mr. Atkinson, the prize for Best Nessie Sighting of the Year (a bookmaker sponsors the prize).  Atkinson said, "There is nothing that big in the Loch. I was in shock as it looked like a big serpent, it’s amazing. You can’t fake a sonar image."   An oceanographer shrugged it off, though: "'The image shows a bloom of algae and zooplankton that would exist on what would be a thermocline."

COMMENT: I used to be a firm believer there was something big an unknown in the Loch, but I'm skeptical these days.  The loch is very poor, biologically speaking: no population of large predators could live in it, and the ocean access (the River Ness) is shallow, and there should be many sightings of big creatures commuting to and from the ocean, not just one or two.  I can't quite close the file: I don't think anyone has given a definitive explanation of the 1960 Dinsdale film.  But I'll be very surprised if anything solid turns up. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

We all like fish stories....

...and Great Bear Lake has some good ones

Alberta's cold, clear Great Bear Lake has a record of producing lake trout 20kg and up, with a 37.5kg monster the official record and some unofficial records bigger than that.  A biologist is studying just why this particular lake is so prolific.  Not only are the fish big and plentiful, but they are evolving at an unusually rapid rate.  The post-glacial lake is home to 4, maybe 5, distinct types of lake trout (not separate species yet). Canada's largest lake, up to 450m deep, may have some bigger fish in its depths, and may become an  important laboratory for the study of fish evolution and possibly on how fish respond to climate change, which has barely touched this lake so far.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Last flight of Discovery

Space Shuttle heads for museum

The shuttle Discovery is headed for its final home.  At Kennedy Space Center, the orbiter was mated to the modified 747 called the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.  It is headed for the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, where it will replace the test shuttle Enterprise as a permanent display.  Discovery flew 39 missions in space, totaling, strangely enough, exactly one year.  Her most famous mission: the launching of the Hubble Space Telescope. 

Fair skies, Discovery.  I'll be visiting you in DC. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

One strange cat: "Strawberry leopard"

Cat likely has a genetic condition

All species are subject to the occasional genetic quirk, which can result in an all-black jaguar or an albino human or whatever.  This case is uniqure: no one has ever seen a pink-coated leopard before.   It may have a condition called erythrism that can result in an excess of red pigments.  Otherwise, the leopard seems fine, and the odd coat hasn't kept him from hunting successfully.  Just a reminder that Nature's card deck occasionally deals a really strange hand. 

North Korea shoots large, short-lived firework

NBC report on failure

Well, this time NK didn't even get to the stage separation problem that doomed their last satellite effort. The first stage failed in what must have been a spectacular display of ineptitude.  I don't know what they will do to the engineers. ( "Comrade, you are sentenced to worst punishment imaginable: to type our the wisdom of the late Dear Leader onto Twitter every day for the rest of your life!")  NK admitted the failure, at least to the outside world. Not clear what they told their own citizens, who still believe the first two satellites made orbit.  While my friend Jim Oberg, on the scene, was skeptical of the rocket's chances of success, I thought it would probably make it given the draconian penalties for failure and the determination of the engineers to get everything right for once.
What effect does this have? Brazil, the last nation to try joining the satellite launching club and endure three failures, gave up.  NK is not a rational nation, but it's a major setback, both for satellite ambitions and for their closely-related long range missiles.  The rest of the world is probably breathing a little easier. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Titanic anniversary note: the Carpathia's sea serpent

Captain reported in detail

The hero of the Titanic affair was Captain Arthur Henry Rostron of the Carpathia, the first ship on the scene of the disaster.  A little-known fact about Roston (I'd never come across it until now) is that his memoirs include a detailed sighting of a "sea serpent."  There are quite a few puzzling incidents like this in ship's logs, although they definitely tail off in the past half-century.
COMMENT: I think there is still some mystery behind the sea serpent stories.  We might well find some kind of enormous eel or eellike fish has escaped the nets of science. (For a fictional treatment, see Arthur C. Clarke's The Deep Range). 

Monday, April 09, 2012

Countdown to North Korean launch

Rare foreign access permitted

Interesting doings in North Korea, as the world's most secretive government permits foreign news organizations to look over its rocket and satellite as the country prepares for its third launch attempt.  (If it works, it will be one technical area where North Korea actually scores a point against the far more advanced and prosperous South).  NK is allowing the access even though foreigners will gain their best look yet at its missile technology.  In most of the world, ICBMs and satellite launchers were originally variants of the same vehicle, although designs diverge over time as the launch vehicle engineers trade readiness for payload.   The US says this launch ciolates a proise not to test new missiles, and NK is no doubt allowing this openness so it can argue this is strictly peaceful and they are not breaking any treaties. 
Counting down.....

Supply run to the International Space Station

Robot-truck delivery

The International Space Station is dependent on regular supply runs from Earth.  With the Space Shuttle gone, that task falls entirely to robotic vehicles.  This beautiful image shows the Automated Transfer Vehicle-3 (ATV-3), built under a European Space Agency (ESA) program, approaching the ISS.  'Aboard is some seven metric tons of materiel, mostly propellant for the ISS's thrusters, which maintain the orbit (for a vehicle the size of the ISS, even the rare atmopsheric atoms and molecules hundreds of km above the Earth will slow it down and lower the orbit).  Also aboard is 300kg of water, one of the limiting factors of any human space endeavor.  (Onboard water recycling systems are an advancing art, receiving their most extensive testing yet on the ISS, but still a long way from recovering 100% of the water used for drinking, hygiene, lab experiments, hydroponics, etc.)    
COMMENT: This kind of upkeep is horrendously expensive, and the ISS even more so, but I think history will look back on the ISS as worthwhile.  For all our simulations and computer-aided design, the only way to perfect the building and maintaining of large space structures is to DO IT.  The knowledge gained will be vital... unless  of course we decide to say on our own planet forever..  In the long run, that is not wise.  (Ask the ivory-billed woodpecker, if you can find one, how smart it is to specialize in one kind of habitat.) 

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Horned dinos roaming all over the place

Naish and the Newest Dino Book

When I was a dinosaur-fascinated kid, horned dinos (a group called Ceratospia) came in two variities: Styrackosaurus and Triceratops. You could include Protoceratops kind of out of pity given the suggestion that it might someday develop horns, and I remember Monoclonius poking up in one book. That was it.  Now the horned dino group is enormous (and includes whole lineages that never did develop actual horns).  New species are constantly nosing their way in, some species are the topic of heated disputes, and there is a theory that the long-marginalized Protoceratops might have been a pretty cool-looking amphibious creature.  Dr. Darren Naish, in this review of a book collecting new research, gives us an introduction to just how varied and spectacular the horned dinos were.  

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Terror of the Mesozoic - a giant chicken

OK, a tyrannosaurian. But with feathers, giant carnivorous dinosaurs just don't look right.

Ancient ruler of China

Meert Yutyrannus huali: nine meters long, 1.5 metric tons, and the biggest feathered animal ever known.  Feathered from head to foot.    Somehow, it seems more dignified to be eaten by a giant reptile that at least looks like a reptile, not like Colonel Sanders' worst nightmare.  But that's the way nature goes - her OWN way.

Dunkleosteus, meet Facebook

My favorite prehistoric creature, a hypercarnivore apex predator (and one of the first vertebrates to have sex - really), is our orca-sized friend Dunkleosteus terrelli.  Now he's reached the apex of 21st century fame:

His own Facebook Page

Intended to be a respoitory for information - schaolarly, popular, and entertainment - for all thing Dunkleosteus, not to mention his relatives and the Devonian era he rules.

Visit, like, and have fun!

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The stars now align in "Titanic"

Cameron responds to Tyson

James Cameron is famously picky about details, but astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson noticed one he missed in Titanic: the star field Rose looks up at in one scene was wrong.  Not only did it have the wrong stars in it considering the date and her geographical location, but it was "lazy" - half the star field was done and then mirrored to make the other half.  Well, Cameron listened. He asked Tyson for the right information, and the 3D re-release has that one change in it.  I have not seen the rerelease and don't know if any of the other little mistakes have been fixed, but at least the astronomy is right.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Quest for Fire - a million years ago?

Dating the first use of fire

We know Neanderthals used fire, as did the ancestor species Homo erectus. But when? Fire is one of the key technologies separating us from every other species on the planet. 
Evidence from a South African cave puts the first use of fire back to approximately one million years.  The analysis of the evidence of fire - burned bones over 30 meters in from the entrance to a cave - is a study in elimination. Was the fire lightning-caused? No, too far from the entrance. Cave dwellers probably found lightning-sparked fire and brought a burning branch into the cave. Spontaneous combustion of deep layers of bat guano? No, no evidence for that.  A one-time happenstance? No, fire was used at the site multiple times.  Humans were still far off from making and domesticating fire at will. That, archaeologists think, came about 600,000 years later.  But we now have a better idea about the timing of a seminal point in human existence. 

Closing in on N Korea satellite launch

Third attempt is controversial, to say the least

Governments are shooing ships and planes out the areas subject to overflight and possible debris hazards (and, according to North Korea's past launch history, entire falling rockets) as the Stalinist nation gears up for its third satellite attempt. The first two went into the Pacific, although most people in the isolated nation probably believe the government's claim they were successful.  The U.S. and other nations (Japan is particularly incensed) call this a major violation of limits NK agreed to in the discussions involving food aid and NK's nuclear program.  Japan has threatened to shoot the rocket down on the grounds it's really a missile test and only secondarily a satellite launch.  A lot of people are holding their breath.
COMMENT: Technically, North Korea's not violating any formal treaties if it's genuinely launching into orbit, since all nations are allowed the free use of space.  But  it seems determined to joint the other 10 space-launch powers under circumstances guaranteeing a major diplomatic, political, and maybe military confrontation. 

Einstein,'s Top 10 (and an omission)

Albert's best thinking

In a late celebration of Albert's birthday (two weeks late), this collection of quotes reminds us of why Einstein is so well remembered - not just for being a genius, but because he could enunciate thoughts that convey important points in ways we ordinary humans can understand.  They left out my favorite, though:
"The definition of insanity is doing a thing over again and expecting different results." 

Happy Birthday!

Sunday, April 01, 2012

REP is now ConservAmerica

Name change for GOP conservationists

With the slogan, "Conservation is Conservative," Republicans for Environmental Protection has been working to uphold Teddy Roosevelt's legacy of the protection of nature.  REP has a name change now.  Check out their new site!

Those "aquatic ape" ideas

Good post on why they don't catch on

There's no unassailable reason why primates could not have returned to the sea and produced an aquatic variation.  Some cryptozoologists think there might be an aquatic primate behind some "mer-creature" tales.  But the idea that human ancestryy went through a phase dominated by water living - the "aquatic ape theory" - doesn't get much traction among anthropologists (or even cryptozoologists, for that matter.). 
In this blog post, John Hawks explains this. It's not one of those horrible academic conspiracies that pseudoscientists like to claim (and which do, on rare occasions, exist de facto if not de jure). The problem is that, even if you argue some characteristics like hairlessness were an adaptation to a water environment, you have to explain why those same characteristics were evolutionary advantages when the species returned to the land.  In other words each characteristic must be explained twice, and make sense both times.  In other other words, I don't have much use for this theory, which is often buttressed by questionable assertions about individual features and is undercut by, among other things, a complete lack of fossil evidence.